CHRISTCHURCH — New Zealand’s prime minister is predicting that economic growth will accelerate when the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged city of Christchurch begins in earnest next year. The rate of growth is in large part tied to insurance claims that are now expected to be well in excess of $24 billion. One-hundred eighty-five people died when a violent tremor shook New Zealand’s second biggest city in February 2011.
The wreckage from last year’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake is gradually being cleared in central Christchurch. Officials say a new, low-rise city eventually will emerge. Major downtown rebuilding projects are expected to begin next year when much of the demolition work is expected to be completed.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says the city, which lies in one of the world’s most ‘quake-prone' countries, is recovering well.
“We have learned a lot but, in summary, I think the progress has been utterly extraordinary and I am very, very proud of the way my council organization has worked. I have a lot of respect for the role the government has played and helping us get there," he said. "But my primary respect is for my neighbors, the people of this city. You know, 12,000 earthquakes later, we are still here. We still are gungho [enthusiastic] about our future and we are in the process of re-imagining and rebuilding and re-creating a place that we love.”
It is estimated that much of the reconstruction work in central Christchurch will take between five and 10 years to complete. Quake-hit suburban areas, where thousands of homes were left in ruins, along with roads, bridges and sewage systems, also will take many years to fix.
The city’s 150-year-old Anglican cathedral was badly damaged. Church officials want to tear it down and replace it. That could take a decade, so to lift the spirits of a battered city, a 6-storey cardboard cathedral will be erected in time for next Easter.
It is the work of a Japanese designer, Shigeru Ban, and will have seating for 700 people.
“We are two years past the February 22 earthquake, which hit the CBD [central business district]," said Reverend Craig Dixon who is managing the project. "Eighty percent of the CBD is coming down, or is down already, so around Christchurch in the central city you’ve just got massive empty spaces. So to have a building go up - and to have such an innovative building go up, really does put forward to the city and to the people a sign of hope,” Dixon added.
Dixon describes what the cardboard cathedral will look like when finished.
"It is a massive triangular-shaped building. As you walk into the height of the roof increases and the building narrows, so it is a really interesting shape as you experience it as you walk into the structure," he said. "But when you look at it from the outside you’ll see a large triangular structure six storeys high.”
Residents say violent aftershocks that followed the major earthquake in February 2011 have subsided, giving relief to a jittery population.
The city’s Catholic bishop, Barry Jones, says that, although the rebuilding work is progressing well, he worries about the psychological health of the vulnerable.
“Sometimes there is a kind of overemphasis on the positive and sometimes commentators sound gungho and all that kind of stuff, but it is a huge amount of stress and suffering still part of the reality of people’s lives and uncertainty and fear. A lot of young people are still afraid of earthquakes, a lot of school children. But the decision makers, no, they seem to be getting on with it,” stated Jones.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key says that his South Pacific nation’s economic growth will accelerate when the rebuilding of central Christchurch begins. The reconstruction is largely funded by the government and insurance companies, but Tim Hunter -- who heads the regional tourism authority -- says that attracting some foreign tourists remains a challenge.
“We particularly noticed with Australian travelers that they have stayed away in droves. They do not like earthquakes; they do not like the look of them. They do not like what it has done here," Hunter noted. "You know, it is going to take some time before we can get that market to feel safe and secure.”
Still, there are many signs that Christchurch is determined to bounce back from the traumatic events of 2011.
Shipping containers have been used to create a makeshift shopping mall in the heart of the shattered central business district. More than 25 stores and cafes have moved in, and have become a beacon of hope and activity.
American tourist Terri, from Maryland, says it is good to see such determination amid the ruins.
“I am surprised that it still so devastated after two years,” he said. "I think this is fantastic actually that people have been resourceful to build and try to restart the community.”
New Zealand experiences about 12,000 earthquakes each year. Most pass unnoticed, but Christchurch will bear the scars of one of the most serious quakes the country has ever seen for years to come.